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The Biden administration has been unable to promote a coherent strategy for dealing with Iran, focusing on rekindling the nuclear deal signed under former President Obama as the country closes in on nuclear weapons capability and provides aid to Russia in its invasion of Ukraine.
“Iran is on the threshold of acquiring a nuclear weapon,” James Phillips, the senior research fellow for foreign policy at the Heritage Foundation, told Fox News. “They already have enough enriched uranium to build a nuclear bomb within weeks.”
Phillips’ warning comes as President Biden made a trip to the Middle East last week, in part to address the growing threat Iran poses to the region’s security. The trip came just before Russian President Vladimir Putin’s visit to Iran, a sign of the two countries strengthening ties as Russia’s war with Ukraine continues.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was quickly condemned by Biden, who led a charge to punish the Kremlin with sanctions meant to cripple its economy and isolate it from the rest of the world. The White House also led a worldwide effort to support Ukraine militarily, sending billions of dollars of military and humanitarian aid aimed at helping defend against Russian aggression.
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However, the US has taken little concrete action to deter Iranian efforts to assist Russia or destabilize the Middle East, something Phillips blames on the administration’s efforts to resurrect the Obama-era Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, widely known as the Iran nuclear deal.
Critics have accused members of the Biden administration, some of whom previously served in the Obama administration, of attempting to return to the deal as a way to secure the former president’s legacy.
“There are many in the Biden administration who view reaching a nuclear deal with Iran as a legacy item dating back to their time in the Obama administration and appear willing to throw the United States into a pact with Iran that is even worse than the original, ” Rep. Lee Zeldein, RN.Y. wrote earlier this year in an op-ed for The Hill.
Zeldin argued another flaw in the current administration’s push for a deal is that any true treaty must be ratified by Congress, making the pact Biden is working on non-binding to any future administrations.
Observers say the administration’s lack of clarity was on display as they floated the idea of a return to the Iran nuclear deal as a way to lower gas prices at the pump.
Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman recently framed the return of the deal as a way to bolster the global oil supply. “They would get sanctions relief,” she said. “They would improve their economy and sell their oil again, and the world needs their oil, so they could get a good price for it. It’s all in their interest to do this.”
However, little has been done to curtail Iranian aggression, even as the country continues to provide support to the Russian war effort. Earlier this month, US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan revealed that intelligence indicates Iran had already or was close to sending Russia “hundreds” of unmanned aerial vehicles, including weapons-capable drones, to assist in military operations in Ukraine.
Iran, which has grown a highly sophisticated drone operation over the last two decades that have struck US missile defense systems and Saudi oil refineries, is expected to provide training to Russian forces on proper operations of the drones as early as this month.
The move has not gone unnoticed by Republican lawmakers, who have called on the administration to act more forcefully against Iran.
“Iran’s UAVs were already destabilizing the Middle East through attacks by Iran and its proxies before Iran extended its malignant activities to help Russia’s unprovoked war of aggression against Ukraine,” Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Texas, the Ranking Member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, told Fox News. “We cannot tolerate these two malignant actors working together against security and stability around the world. That’s why I introduced the bipartisan Stop Iranian Drones Act, which clarifies that US sanctions on Iran’s conventional weapons proliferation include UAVs.”
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You. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., called out what he said was a Biden administration policy of “concessions” to a “terrorist regime” that will “accelerate its plans to achieve nuclear status.”
“The Ayatollah is fueling Putin’s war machine and plans to contribute to the deaths of countless innocent Ukrainians,” Rubio told Fox News. “Instead of enforcing congressionally mandated sanctions on Iran’s drone program, the administration continues to pursue a disastrous nuclear deal with Tehran.”
“The Biden administration has painted itself into a corner on Iran sanctions,” Phillips said. “It greatly underestimated the leverage it would need to extract another nuclear deal from Iran…it let its foot off the pedal on the maximum pressure sanction strategy that the Trump administration had adopted.”
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Phillips argued that the Biden administration was “politically uncomfortable” with carrying over policies from the Trump administration, leaving itself in a difficult position to punish Iran with sanctions or a credible military threat in response to proxy attacks against US forces in the region.
However, Robert Einhorn, the senior fellow for foreign policy at the Brookings Institution, argued that there is not much more the administration can do with sanctions to reign in Iran.
“There’s so many sanctions against Iran, it’s hard to think of what else could be done,” Einhorn told Fox News.
Einhorn said that the Biden administration has continued its focus on a return to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA, but argued that the chance of success for a mutually agreeable return to the deal was small. Noting that Iran has “enriched uranium to the 60% level” and it could just be a “matter of days” for the country to “accumulate weapons grade uranium,” the Biden administration was likely to begin focusing more on a push for “security cooperation between Israel and its Arab neighbors” that would “defend against encroachment by Iran and its proxies.”
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“It becomes all the more important that the United States and its regional partners develop a very strong strategy to deter Iran, and I think the Biden administration recognizes that now,” Einhorn said. “While it’s seeking a return to the JCPOA, it’s hedging its bets and recognizing that even if there is a return to the JCPOA, it will be important to deter Iran, Iran’s regional proxies, from acting in a manner inconsistent with the US inputs and priorities.”
Biden did devote part of his trip to Israel last week attempting to strengthen the Abraham Accords, a Trump-era effort to bring Israel closer to Bahrain, Morocco, and the United Arab Emirates, while also trying to enhance cooperation between Israel and Saudi Arabia.
However, Phillips argued that the administration has not done enough, pointing to its lack of enforcement of sanctions against Iran that are still in place.
“The administration turned a blind eye to Chinese imports of sanctioned Iranian oil and only recently stepped up its efforts to penalize Chinese refiners and the smuggling middlemen that make big bucks off owning Iranian oil,” Phillips said. “But they should have been doing that from day one… I think they really missed the boat by reducing pressure on Iran.”
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He warned that the consequences of failing to confront Iran would be dire, arguing that the country is “closer than it has ever been to attaining a nuclear weapon.” To combat that, Phillips argued that sanctions alone will not be enough to deter Iran.
“Sanctions alone aren’t going to stop Iran’s nuclear program any more than they stopped North Korea’s,” he said. “What would deter Iran is a credible threat of the effective use of force.”
Phillips argued that while Iran believes the US pays lip service when it comes to military retaliation, they rarely back up words with action.
“That only increases Iran’s bargaining leverage,” he argued.
Instead, he said that the next time Iran uses one of its proxies to attack US troops or interests in the region, the US should show Iran that it is willing to use force to protect its interests.
“The US should respond forcefully and not just turn the other cheek,” Phillips said. “In the Middle East, if you turn the other cheek, many times you will be hit in the other cheek.”
Fox News’ Louis Casiano contributed to this report.